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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 13, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  1 Kings 19:9-15a and Matthew 14:22-33
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Before I get into my sermon, I need to say some things about what has transpired over the past 40 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia.  As you know, a group of at least a thousand white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klanners gathered there, along with five to six thousand counter-protestors.[1]  It did not take long for things to turn violent, but then the mere rallying of white nationalists is in and of itself violent for people of color.  According to the LA Times, the violence started within the white supremacist rally.[2]  The violence peaked when a car was driven at high speed into a crowd of counter-protestors, apparently on purpose by a white supremacist,[3] killing one and injuring many others.

I suspect that the vast majority of the white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville consider themselves to be Christians.  But “supremacy” is the precise opposite of Jesus’ message.  Jesus calls us to love one another – even our enemies – and to place others’ needs before our own, even to die for one another.  The idea of ‘supremacy’ is absurd to Jesus.  Racism goes against everything that Jesus taught.  It promotes hatred, not love; anger, not compassion; vengeance, not mercy.  It is a sin.

“So,” as Father James Martin put it, “‘Christian white supremacist’ is an oxymoron.  Every time you shout ‘White Power!’ you might as well be shouting ‘Crucify him!’  And any time you lift your hand in a Nazi salute, you might as well be lifting your hand to nail Jesus to the Cross.  And lest you miss the point, your Savior is Jewish.”[4]

Now, I don’t think there are any who disagree with what I’ve said.  There may be some who are uncomfortable with the tone or the framing, but I’d be very surprised if any of you disagree with the substance.  So, why did I say it?  Because I needed to.  Week after week, I get up here in this pulpit to preach the gospel of Jesus and when something is happening in the world that violates the gospel, I need to say so.  To be silent is insufficient.  White silence is violence.  To be silent is to offer my consent.  And I do not consent to racism.

The events of the week, and especially of the last day and a half have left me wondering what else to say to you.  I usually have a good idea of where my sermon is going by Tuesday.  I typically have the main points figured out by Wednesday or Thursday.  All that changed for me yesterday as new from Charlottesville, Virginia – that had started showing up in the Twitter feed the night before – was reported on NPR and I started reading more online.  Yesterday afternoon, I pushed the work I had done on my sermon aside and started over.

And it wasn’t just Charlottesville.  The news of the dangerous posturing of the President of the United States and the ruler of North Korea tilled the soils of my heart and left me feeling a low-grade anxiety.  I can’t help but wonder about how those of you here and throughout our country – throughout our world – who deal with chronic conditions of anxiety and/or depression and/or post-traumatic stress are coping.  I pray that you are doing the self-care that you need and I hope that the rest of this sermon may even be a balm in some small way for you as writing it has been for me.

As I went back to the texts yesterday, I found some comfort in the reading from 1 Kings and the verses that come before it.  Elijah is depressed.  “Elijah has come to the wilderness to die, certain that he is the only faithful one left in Israel.  His orchestration of the upstaging of Baal – when, quite against the odds, the fire of the Lord consumed Elijah’s water-soaked altar – caught the attention of Queen Jezebel, never one to suffer humiliation gladly.  Now he has a price on his head.  Exhausted, despondent, and somewhat resentful over this turn of events, Elijah sits ‘under a solitary broom tree’ and [turns to God in prayer and] asks to die (1 Kings 19:4).”[5]

Talbot Davis calls Elijah’s prayer “the worst prayer in the Bible.”  “[Elijah’s] trauma piles up, the weight becomes unbearable, and Elijah wants to end it all.  And although it is the worst prayer in the Bible, I’m really glad it’s here.  Because I know some of you have prayed it.  Or [maybe, even now,] you are praying it.”[6]  When hope is gone, when madness seems to surround you, when the pain is relentless, it can seem like there is only one prayer to pray, “Take my life.  Do it now.  Instantly.  Painlessly.  Fix it, take it, do it.  I’m tired of being responsible for it.”[7]

That is certainly where Elijah was.  But listen to God’s response.  “All at once an angel touched [Elijah] and said, ‘Get up and eat.’  [Elijah] looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water.  He ate and drank and then lay down again” (1 Kings 19:5b-6).  “And in case you missed it the first time, the same thing happens in 19:7-8a:  ‘The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched [Elijah] and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.”  So he got up and ate and drank.’

“And the repetition is the key.  The answer to this painfully large prayer is massively small:  bread, water, and a bed.  Elijah wants a snap answer, a quick fix, and God grants the start of a slow process – bread, water, bed.  [It is] As if recovering hope can never be a matter of great leaps, but always involves small steps.”[8]

Davis points out that God puts a burden on Elijah.  It’s not a big burden.  It’s a manageable burden, but it’s on Elijah.  “God sent the provision but Elijah has to act on it to receive it.  It’s not like the [angel] put an IV line in and Elijah will receive nourishment whether he wants it or not.  He had to act.  He had to own.  He wanted to be totally passive – wanted God to do something instantaneous for him.  Either kill him or make him all better in a snap.  But instead God gives a task, a massively small task:  Get up and eat.  I’m sending bread, water and a bed but you’ve gotta get up and take advantage of what I’m providing.”[9]

So, here’s my takeaway from this exchange (and I realize I haven’t gotten to the reading yet, but bear with me):  God won’t do for you want God wants to do with you.

Well, Elijah does get up and eats, and wanders the hills until he gets to Mount Horeb.  And he finds a cave there and spends the night.  And the word of Yahweh comes to him saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah says (and I’m paraphrasing here), “I’ve been faithful, but look at what they’re trying to do to me.  They’re trying to kill me!”

God does not say, “Dude, you were just asking me to kill you,” which I think is awfully nice of God.  Instead, God says, “Time for an object lesson.  Get out of the cave and stand on the mountain.”  Then there is a mighty wind, and an earthquake, and great fire.  Surely Elijah recognized these signs, just as Moses had when he was on the mountain.  “But this time, God is not in any of them.  God has changed languages – speaking now in the ‘sound of sheer silence.’”[10]

It is in the silence that Elijah realizes the presence of Yahweh.  In is in that profound stillness that Elijah realizes he is in the presence of God.  And he goes and stands at the entrance of the cave.  The voice comes to him again:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been faithful, but the people of Israel have not.  I really think I’m the only faithful one left, and they are coming to hunt me down.”

And God says, “You’re not done.  I’ve got more for you to do.  Get going.”

And here’s take away number 2:  Even when we’re at our lowest, God has work for us to do.

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that the reason Jesus went off into the wilderness was because King Herod had executed John the Baptist.  The principalities and powers of his day was doing their best to silence God’s truth and so they killed John.  Jesus, another proclaimer of God’s truth, knew he could be next and he went off to do a little self-care.  He went off to pray.  It didn’t happen.  The crowd followed him.  He fed them.  Jesus ordered the disciples to get in a boat and go away.  Then he dispersed the crowd.  And Jesus finally got some time to himself to pray.

The night falls and the boat is out there on the lake when a storm kicks up.  Waves batter the boat and even the wind is against them.

Even the wind is against them.  When things are bad, it really does seem like things can pile on.

In the midst of all this, Jesus comes to them, walking on the water.  Laurel Dykstra notes that the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ response is striking in this passage.  “Although the boat is battered by waves and wind, the disciples are not ‘troubled’ (tarasso in Greek) until they see Jesus (Matthew 14:26).  Certainly they are afraid to see someone walking on water, but the only other place in Matthew this word appears is when Herod learns that Jesus is born (Matthew 2:3).”[11]  It seems to me that Jesus showing up in turbulent times is not necessarily comforting.  In fact, for those of us who would follow him – and even for those who oppose him – Jesus showing up can be upsetting, even troubling.

And then there’s what Jesus does.  Jesus doesn’t respond to the troubled disciples by stilling the storm.  Instead, he just says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27).  Dykstra points out that this echoes what the Israelites are told when they are backed up against the Red Sea and the Egyptian army is closing in on them. “Do not be afraid.  Stand firm,” Moses tells them (Exodus 14:13).[12]

“Do not be afraid.”  These words are so common to the biblical narrative that we almost don’t hear them.  The Israelites are told, “Do not be afraid,” as they are backed up against the sea.  Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, and the shepherds in the fields are all told, “Do not be afraid” leading up to and at the birth of Jesus.  In Luke’s gospel, those words are part of Jesus’ invitation to Peter to become a follower.  In a couple chapters from where we are today in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will speak these words to the disciples who are with him at the Transfiguration.  And at the resurrection, the first thing the angel tells the women who come to the tomb is, “Do not be afraid.”

But of course I’m afraid, Jesus.  Have you been listening to what Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump have been saying this past week?  Have you heard the hate being spewed by the racist, neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klanners in Virginia this weekend?  Of course I’m afraid.

But it’s not just that, Jesus.  I know that when you show up, you’re going to lay claim to me and ask me to do something risky.  Of course I’m afraid.

When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk toward you, of course he floundered – and not just because he took his eyes off you.  He floundered because he became afraid.  And, quite frankly, that fear was justified.  “It’s a storm, for heaven’s sake, raging powerfully enough to sink the boat, let alone drown a single person.  He has, in other words, perfectly good reason to be afraid.”[13]  And so do I and so do the rest of the people here today.

Of course we have reason to be afraid.  “Whether it’s a fear of the return of illness, of the stability of a fragile relationship, of loneliness after loss, of not being accepted by those we esteem, of whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives,… of the direction of our country”[14] – you name it, there is a lot in our lives that gives us reason to be afraid.

So, of course Jesus needs to tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is debilitating.  “It sneaks up on us, paralyzes us, and makes it difficult to move forward at all, let alone with confidence.  Fear, in short, is one of the primary things that robs the children of God of the abundant life God intends for us …”[15]  I agree with David Lose:  When Jesus says to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” I think it’s more of a lament than a rebuke.

“In response to Peter’s fear, however, Jesus doesn’t simply urge him to [have] courage [nor does he] instruct Peter to keep his eyes on him.  Rather, when Peter begins to sink, Jesus reaches out and grabs him, saving him from drowning and restoring him to his vocation as disciple.  And so also with us!  Jesus will not let us go.  Jesus is with us.  Jesus will not give up on us.  Jesus will grab hold of us when we falter and restore us to where we can be of service.

“This the promise at the heart of this story, all of Matthew’s Gospel, and indeed of our faith:  that God will never give up, that God is with us and for us, that God, in the end, will do what we cannot.  And this promise is the one thing I know of that helps us cope with and transcend fear.  Transcend, not defeat.  Fear is a part of our lives, and we should take care that being fearful is not equated with faithlessness.  Courage, after all, isn’t the absence of fear but the ability to take our stand and do what needs to be done even when we’re afraid.”[16]

So, in the face of the news, let me say this to you – and to me:  Do not be afraid.

Amen.

[1] Connie Larkman, “Charlottesville state of emergency ends ‘Unite the Right’ rally,” United Church of Christ, http://www.ucc.org/news_charlottesville_state_of_emergency_ends_unite_the_right_rally_08122017 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[2] Matt Pearce, Robert Armengol, David S. Cloud, “Three dead, dozens hurt after Virginia white nationalist rally is dispersed; Trump blames ‘many sides,’” Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-charlottesville-white-nationalists-rally-20170812-story.html (posted 12 August 2017; accessed 13 August 2017).

[3] Michael Edison Hayden, Adam Kelsey, and Lucien Bruggeman, “Man charged with murder for allegedly plowing into crowd in Charlottesville following white nationalist rally,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/US/car-hits-crowd-protesters-white-nationalist-rally-virginia/story (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[4] James Martin, SJ, Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin/posts/10154669492056496 (posted and accessed 12 August 2017).

[5] Kari Jo Verhulst, “Recognizing God’s Presence,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/recognizing-gods-presence-0 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[6] Talbot Davis, “How God Answers the Worst Prayer in the Bible,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8345/how-god-answers-the-worst-prayer-in-the-bible (posted 10 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Verhulst, op. cit.

[11] Laurel Dykstra, “Here Comes Trouble,” Sojourners, https://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/here-comes-trouble?parent=51401 (accessed 12 August 2017).

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Lose, “Pentecost 10 A: Something More,” …in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2017/08/pentecost-10-a-something-more/ (posted 7 August 2017; accessed 12 August 2017).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

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Scientists have concluded that the emotional responses to terrorism are out of proportion to the actual risk. After 9/11 about 30 percent of the population thought they themselves would personally experience terrorism with[in] a year. Women tend to respond to terrorism with fear, men with anger. Anger reduces the ability to respond to perceived threats rationally and leads people to take greater risks in response to perceived threats.

from “Century Marks,” Christian Century, 20 January 2016 edition, page 8.
citing NPR, 22 December 2015, as their source for this information

You’ve probably seen statistics about how inaccurate this perceived threat really is. Assuming this refers to 30% of the U.S. population, we should be more afraid of toddlers than terrorists. In the US in 2015, more people were shot and killed by toddlers than by terrorists. However, what I find really interesting about this little article is the response to the perceived threat (as unfounded as it may be): fear and anger.

In my experience, fear and anger often walk hand-in-hand within the individual. One may seem bigger or stronger at any given time, but when one is there the other probably is, too. I suspect the gender difference noted has more to do with enculturalization than anything else: culture teaches us that it’s okay for woman to be afraid but not angry; that it’s okay for men to be angry but not afraid.

But what if we were to choose to respond to perceived threats (no matter how realistic they are) with love? What if we were to follow Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies? Even if our love doesn’t change those who we find threatening, it would change us. For the better.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, August 7, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philippians 1:20-30 and Psalm 90
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Today’s sermon, as you may have deduced from the sermon title, is about life. So, of course, I want to talk about death.

Here’s the thing. Fear gets in the way of life. And there is perhaps no greater fear in the human condition than the fear of death.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the psychiatrist famous for her ground-breaking work on death and dying, and David Kessler, another expert of death and dying, wrote: “If we could literally reach into you and remove all your fears – every one of them – how different would your life be? Think about it. If nothing stopped you from following your dreams, your life would probably be very different. This is what the dying learn. Dying makes our worst fears come forward to be faced directly. It helps us see the different life that is possible, and in that vision, takes the rest of our fears away.

“Unfortunately, by the time the fear is gone most of us are too sick or too old to do those things we would have done before, had we not been afraid.… Thus, one lesson becomes clear: we must transcend our fears while we can still do those things we dream of.

“To transcend fear though, we must move somewhere else emotionally; we must move into love.

“Happiness, anxiety, joy, resentment – we have many words for the many emotions we experience in our lifetimes. But deep down, at our cores, there are only two emotions: love and fear. All positive emotions come from love, all negative emotions from fear. From love flows happiness, contentment, peace, and joy. From fear comes anger, hate, anxiety and guilt.

“It’s true that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear. But it’s more accurate to say that there is only love or fear, for we cannot feel these two emotions together, at exactly the same time. They’re opposites. If we’re in fear, we are not in a place of love. When we’re in a place of love, we cannot be in a place of fear. Can you think of a time when you’ve been in both love and fear? It’s impossible.”[1]

mr_00056508Now, I’m not sure I’m in complete agreement with this. I think it’s possible to vacillating so quickly between these two emotions it can feel like we’re experiencing both at the same time. For instance, imagine a teenager asking someone out on a first date. That’s going to feel like love and fear at the same time. But imagine, too, if that teenager were to choose to be only in a state of love when making that invitation. Imagine how different that experience would be – for both the asker and the askee – from the typical sweaty-palmed, voice-shaking invitation.

And that’s kinda my point. Fear gets in the way of life.

And the fear of death is one of the biggest fears we deal with. As I did some research on this topic, I came across this story.[2]

Once upon a time, a man set out on a sea voyage with many others. After they were some distance from shore, the seas got rougher and rougher, until a ferocious storm threatened to upend the ship and send it spiraling into the depths. [At this point as I read, I thought about Jonah and how he got tossed overboard and swallowed up by a big fish.] Everyone on board was beyond terrified – except this one man who just sat passively and seemingly at ease with the situation. [This made me think of Jesus, asleep on the boat as his disciples panicked.] At last, when it became clear the storm was passing, a group approached the man and asked him, “How could you remain so calm when we were only a second away from possible death?”

The man eyed them evenly and replied, “When is it ever different in life?”

Live in fear or live in love.

I have come to an understanding of death as the passage we make to dwell in the fullness of God’s love. Christian faith has influenced this understanding. Authors have written about it with words like, “death is merely a doorway, a passage from one way of living in God’s presence in the present to another way of living in God’s presence – in the open space of unseized possibility we call the future.”[3]

For me, this understanding solidified in a dream. Though I was living in California when I had this dream, in the dream I was back in Lexington, Massachusetts (where I grew up). I was walking across the town square known as “The Battle Green” toward Mass Ave, when the ground below me suddenly melted. You know how when you hold a piece of paper over a burning candle, the paper will turn brown and then burst into flame? That’s what the ground did. It was there; it turned brown; and suddenly it was lava.

I tried to run, but somehow the rational part of my brain crept into my dream and I realized it’s impossible to run on a liquid. “Oh,” I thought, “I must be dead.” And as soon as I acknowledged that I was dead, I was overcome by a great sense of peace.

I’ve had dreams when I’ve come close to dying. I’ve had dreams when my rational brain intervened to wake me up from some danger. This dream I had when the ground melted – this is the only dream I can remember when I actually died.

And I knew it was okay.

Writing about death, Brian McLaren says, “Nobody knows for sure, but in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can expect to experience death as a passage, like birth, the end of one life stage and the beginning of another. We don’t know how that passage will come … like a slow slipping away of disease, like a sudden jolt or shock of an accident. However it happens, we can expect to discover that we’re not falling out of life, but deeper into it.

“On the other side, we can expect [and I (Jeff) believe we will find] as never before the unimaginable light or energy of God’s presence. We will enter into a goodness so good, a richness so rich, a holiness so holy, a mercy and love so strong and true that all of our evil, pride, lust, greed, resentment, and fear will be instantly melted out of us. We will at that moment more fully understand how much we have been forgiven, and so we will more than ever be filled with love … love for God who forgives, and with God, love for everyone and everything …”[4]

I don’t know if we will “meet” people who have died before us. If we do, I don’t think it will be like meeting someone at a family reunion in this life. I do believe that the illusion that we are all separate will fall away and we will understand and experience the connectedness and relatedness of all humanity, of all creation. It will be the fullest and “most exquisite sense of oneness and interrelatedness and harmony – a sense of belonging and connectedness that we approach only vaguely and clumsily in our most ecstatic moments in this life.”[5]

Perhaps I could describe this as a waking up. Or that it will be “like diving or falling or stepping into a big wave on the beach. You will feel yourself lifted off your feet and taken up into a swirl and curl and spin more powerful than you can now imagine. But there will be no fear, because the motion and flow will be the dance of [the Trinity]. The rising tide will be life and joy. The undertow will be love, and you will be drawn deeper and deeper in.”[6]

In our lesson from Philippians, Paul wrote, “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain,” as it is translated in the New Revised Standard Version. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”[7] Not exactly straight forward, Paul.

Eugene Peterson translated that verse with more than ten words in The Message. “[E]verything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.”[8]

McLaren interprets the line this way: “On one hand, we feel a pull to stay here in this life, enjoying the light and love and goodness of God with so many people who are dear to us, with so much good work left to be done. On the other hand, we feel an equal and opposite pull toward the light and love and goodness of God experienced more directly beyond this life.”[9]

While I think this is true, I also think we shouldn’t be in a hurry to get to the next experience. Rather, I hope this vision, this hope, frees us from the fear of death so that we can fully live and fully love now. You see, when we overcome our fear of death, we are liberated for life. Our values, perspectives, and actions shift for the better. “To believe that no good thing is lost, but that all goodness will be taken up and consummated in God – think of how that frees you to do good without reservation. To participate in a network of relationships that isn’t limited by death in the slightest degree – think of how that would make every person matter and how it would free you to live with boundless, loving aliveness.”[10]

I can think of two spiritual practices that are helping me move from fear to love. The first is the practice of pausing to see the world as God sees it. The second is gratitude.

13876555_10208884602168310_1454543373759746488_nThe first is not easy, but let me share an example of what I mean by this. A Facebook friend posted this picture[11] yesterday afternoon. His comment about the picture: “These are both someone’s son. These are both esteemed by God – precious, loved, dignified, and worthy. Both breathe the same air and bleed the same blood beating from the same heart. One will sleep on clean sheets tonight, safely tucked in with a kiss. The other will not. Turn our hearts, God. Give us eyes to see.”

The second, practicing gratitude, is easier and there’s even an app for it. The app was inspired by the writings and attitude of Shalin Shah, a 22-year-old who died of cancer in 2015. In a blog post published shortly before he died, Shah described moving through his fear of death to realize his true purpose in life ― to inspire others to live their lives fully. Following Shah’s lead, the app reminds users to slow down and give thanks.[12] Whether you use the app or a pen and a journal, the practice of gratitude can help you move from fear to love.

Kubler-Ross and Kessler tell us it’s like this: “We have to make a decision to be in one place or the other [– fear or love]. There is no neutrality in this. If you don’t actively choose love, you will find yourself in a place of either fear or one of its component feelings. Every moment offers the choice to choose one or the other. And we must continually make these choices, especially in difficult circumstances when our commitment to love, instead of fear, is challenged.”[13]

May we all choose to live in alliance with God’s Spirit of Life, which is love, so that we may be fully alive.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to reflect on …

… anything from the sermon or scriptures that caught your attention; or

… a time when you had a significant encounter with death; or

… the idea that people are enslaved by the fear of death; or

… any one of the images of dying and death from the sermon or your own imagination, and to hold that image in the presence of God until you feel that death can be your friend, not your enemy.

[1] Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler, “When You Don’t Choose Love You Choose Fear,” from Life Lessons: Two Experts on Death and Dying Teach Us About the Mysteries of Life and Living, reprinted on Awakin.org, http://www.awakin.org/read/view.php?tid=680 (accessed 6 August 2016).

[2] Mark Tyrrell, “Dealing with a Fear of Death,” Uncommon Help, http://www.uncommonhelp.me/articles/dealing-with-a-fear-of-death/ (accessed 2 August 2016).

[3] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking [Kindle version], chapter 50. Retrieved from amazon.com.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Philippians 1:21, NRSV.

[8] Philippians 1:21, The Message.

[9] McLaren, op. cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ryan Phipps, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10208884602168310 (posted and accessed 6 August 2016).

[12] Antonia Blumberg, “This Simple Gratitude App Was Inspired By A 22-Year-Old Who Died Of Cancer,” The Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/this-simple-gratitude-app-was-inspired-by-a-22-year-old-who-died-of-cancer_us_57a3a580e4b056bad214f622 (posted 5 August 2016; accessed 6 August 2016).

[13] Kubler-Ross and Kessler, op. cit.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Luke 24:1-35
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

It was a Saturday, the Sabbath day. But it wasn’t any Saturday. It was the day after the Roman government brutally executed Jesus. His followers saw his arrest, followed his trial, though from a distance. Some even witnessed his execution and, we are told, took his body and laid it in a tomb.

A friend of mine points out, “There are no stories in the sacred text of my tradition about his family’s grief, about the pain of his intimates Mary Magdalene or John (the disciple whom Jesus loved), no stories about his friends’ despair or his followers’ shock. The text is silent. But any of us who have lost a beloved, particularly to violent and tragic death, need no stories. We know what they felt.”[1]

I try as best I can each year to enter into the story of Holy Week. I try, as best I can, not just to read the story, but to imagine myself there. And so this week I have tried to imagine what the disciples were feeling. Deep grief, no doubt. The one they had hoped would redeem Israel had been crushed by the elites. The religious authorities and the government authorities colluded to have him killed. I imagine they were angry, too. I get angry when I hear about injustice, let alone witness it. And I’ve always assumed they were scared of the Romans, scared that they might be next.

But on re-reading today’s gospel lesson, I realize that it doesn’t say that the disciples were afraid of the government. So I went back and re-read all the Easter accounts in the four gospels and I was surprised to find no mention of the disciples being afraid of the Romans. There’s plenty of fear in the stories, but with one exception, that fear comes from seeing angels or seeing the appearances of the resurrected Christ himself.

Only in John are the disciples in a locked room because they are afraid – and then only on Sunday evening, not Friday night, not on Saturday, not on Sunday morning or afternoon. John says they locked the door out of fear, not of the Romans, but of “the Jews.” And if you read the Passion story in John, you’ll see how readily he blames “the Jews” for Jesus’ crucifixion. It can end up sounding quite anti-Semitic, which, given the likelihood that John’s gospel was written around the same time that the followers of Jesus were being kicked out of the synagogues, isn’t too surprising. John probably had an ax to grind.

The fact is that crucifixion was a Roman method of execution, so Jesus was killed under Roman authority, and any collusion on the part of any Jews would have been collusion on the part of the Jewish elites, especially members of the Temple priest class. If the disciples were afraid of the Roman government, that reality didn’t make it into the stories.

I am not the only one who has this assumption that the disciples were huddled in a locked room on that first Easter morning, fearing for their lives. One commentary I read on our Gospel story in preparation for this sermon says, “The women are terrified, of course, but then the angels proceed to do a reassuring little Sunday school lesson with them, reminding them in a ‘He told you so, didn’t he?’ way that this empty tomb should really come as no surprise. It actually makes a lot of sense if they think back on all that Jesus said and did in their presence. ‘Ohhhh, that’s right, we remember now …’ [the women say] – and they run back to the apostles, the eleven, the men who are hiding behind locked doors, shaking with fear (not that we blame them, after what they’ve seen and experienced in the past few days).”[2]

Only the text doesn’t say any of that. The text says the women are terrified by the angel, and the text doesn’t say anything about the men being afraid at all.

Maybe it’s projection. Maybe we read into the story something that isn’t there. Maybe our own fears get projected into the gospel narratives. It sure seems like we have reasons to fear. The attack in Brussels on Tuesday initially evoked that response in me. But then, that’s the terrorists’ goal, isn’t it: to instill a sense to terror in the populace?

Terror Attacks 26 March 2016So, I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the disciples to the death of Jesus in the context of terrorist attacks. And if you’ll permit a short aside here, I’d like to make a confession. Just this month, there have been at least eight terrorist attacks around the world. On March 7, the small town of Shabqadar, Pakistan, was rocked by a suicide bomb, killing around 10 and injuring around 30. On March 13, gunmen belonging to the North African affiliate of Al Qaeda opened fire Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast; 22 were killed. On the same day, Kurdish militants set off a car bomb in the heart of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, killing at least 37. On March 16, a blast killed at least 15 and injured around 30 people in Pashawar, Pakistan. Also on March 16, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up at a mosque in the outskirts of Maiduguri, Nigeria, killing 26. On March 20, a suicide bomber killed five people and injured more than 30 in Istanbul, Turkey. On March 21, unidentified gunmen opened fire at a hotel in Bamako, Mali; only one person was killed, one of the attackers.[3] And on March 22, there were the attacks in Brussels, killing 31 and wounding some 300.[4] Eight terrorist-attacks this month.

My confession is this: I want to acknowledge the narrowness of my own awareness, that it took an attack in a European country (that is, a white country) for me to pay attention. The same seems to be true of the news media in my country, at least the news media I consume. I, right along with the rest of the mainstream of this nation, still have work to do to address the racism that is baked into our identity and being.

Aside finished; now back to the main thrust of my sermon.

So, what if the disciples weren’t afraid of the Roman government the way I’ve always assumed? What if, despite all they knew of the cruelty of the government, its willingness to torture and maim and kill for its own political goals, the disciples weren’t afraid? I think, perhaps, that might have been one of the things that made them open to the transformative power of the resurrection.

I don’t pretend to know what happened on the Sunday after Jesus was killed. I know that for some Christians it is really important that the tomb was empty, that the resurrection of Jesus involved his physical body. It may have. But if it did, I don’t think it involved a resuscitation of his flesh. One of the reasons John may have written about the locked room was so that Jesus’ appearance there would include an element of the metaphysical. Certainly the story we heard in the second part of our gospel lesson suggests something other than the reanimation of Jesus’ molecules. These disciples don’t recognize him and when they finally do recognize him, he vanishes. Poof. But maybe I’m wrong.

My point is, I don’t think it matters whether Jesus’ resurrection included the reanimation of his body. What’s important about the resurrection is not the impact it had on Jesus. What’s important about the resurrection is the impact it had on Jesus’ disciples.

The faithful women who went to the grave to tend to Jesus’ body, to tend to death, changed as a result of their experience at the grave. And it started with them remembering what Jesus had said. The men in the dazzling clothing (angels, we assume) remind them. In the same way, for the disciples on the road to Emmaus, it started with the remembering of the stories from the Hebrew Scriptures and all that Jesus said and did.

The God who spoke through the Prophet Isaiah about “new heavens and a new earth” began with the resurrection a new creation and grounded it in hope. The resurrection “isn’t only about ‘my own personal life after I die,’ then, but about God’s whole new creation, God’s new age, an age and a way of being that continually calls us to the table, to reconciliation and healing, to compassion and justice, to participation in the wonders of God’s new age, God’s new earth. There is a commissioning for each one of us and for our communities of faith to join in what God is doing.”[5]

With the resurrection, the uprising begins.

As N.T. Wright, in the book The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (the book that the adult Sunday School will start studying next week), says, “Acts of justice and mercy, the creation of beauty and the celebration of truth, deeds of love and the creation of communities of kindness and forgiveness – these all matter, and they matter forever.”[6] And they are what this uprising is all about.

I’m with John Dominic Crossan. “What could not have been predicted and might not have been expected was that the end was not the end. Those who had originally experienced divine power through [Jesus’] vision and his example, still continued to do so after his death. In fact, even more so, because now it was no longer confined by time or place.… Jesus’ own followers … talked eventually not just of continued affection or spreading superstition but of resurrection. They tried to express what they meant by telling, for example, about the journey to Emmaus undertaken by two Jesus followers, one named and clearly male, one unnamed and [therefore] probably female [or perhaps unnamed so this person can be any of us]. The couple were leaving Jerusalem in disappointed and dejected sorrow. Jesus joined them on the road and, unknown and unrecognized, explained how the Hebrew scriptures should have prepared them for his fate. Later that evening they invited him to join them for their evening meal and finally they recognized him when once again he served the meal to them as of old beside the lake[, with the multitude, and in the upper room]. And then, only then, they started back to Jerusalem in high spirits.”[7]

It doesn’t matter if this actually happened, because it happens all the time. Every time we come to the table, we are invited to participate in the resurrection. The bread is broken and we are invited to open our eyes to the presence of Jesus in our midst. We are invited to participate in the drama of Jesus’ body and blood being alive again in us, reunited in us, transforming us into a community of resurrection.

Easter is the beginning of a new age. But like Jesus at the table who disappeared when he was recognized, that new age had both begun in an uprising and has not come to its fullness. People still suffer. Terrorists still bomb and kill and countries still war. Our hearts are still torn and our health still worries us. Our loved ones still die and our doubts still trouble us.

And yet, Christ is alive.

And so we know, in the words of Bishop Yvette Flunder, “life defeats death, peace is more powerful than war, love is greater than hatred, and good will outlasts evil. Foolish people think that killing the Messenger will kill the message! They don’t understand the power of Resurrection! Graves are temporary. May Divine Life spring forth out of the ashes of all of our struggles and renew us for the challenges to come.”[8]

Now, to add one more dimension to the sermon, as we enter into a time of quiet contemplation, I invite you to imagine the scene when the risen Christ broke the bread and suddenly disappeared. Hold that moment of disappearance in silence, and open your heart to the possibility of absence becoming fullness.

[1] Lizann Bassham, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 26 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/lizann.bassham/posts/10154066387264288.

[2] Kathryn M. Matthews, “Additional Reflection on Luke 24:1-12,” Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_march_27_2016 (accessed 21 March 2016), emphasis added.

[3] Tanvi Misra, “Beyond Brussels: 8 Other Cities Attacked by Terrorists in March,” The Atlantic Citylab, http://www.citylab.com/crime/2016/03/apart-from-brussels-here-are-8-other-cities-attacked-by-extremists-this-month/474855/ (posted 22 March 2016; accessed 23 March 2016).

[4] Jess McHugh, “Europe Terrorist Attacks 2016: Timeline Of Bombings And Terror Threats Before Brussels,” International Business Times, http://www.ibtimes.com/europe-terrorist-attacks-2016-timeline-bombings-terror-threats-brussels-2341851 (posted 24 March 2016; accessed 26 March 2016).

[5] Kathryn M. Matthews, op. cit.

[6] Quoted by Matthews, op. cit.

[7] John Dominic Crossan, “Overture,” The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), xiii.

[8] Yvette Flunder, status update on Facebook posted and accessed on 24 March 2016; https://www.facebook.com/yflunder/posts/10153388229660894.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, March 6, 2016, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture: Matthew 6:19–7:12
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            I was on the train by myself. That was fine. I’m used to riding on trains by myself. It was when I realized that I was on the wrong train that my anxiety started to rise. The fact that I was in France and I don’t speak French was certainly a contributing factor. “Please, God, may the conductor speak English.” And God answered my prayer: No.

Luckily, the conductor was compassionate. He wrote something on a piece of paper, and said something with some hand gestures that I guessed meant I was supposed to get off the train when we got to a town with the name on the paper. For the next twelve hours (it was probably only 30 or 40 minutes – maybe only 20) I watched the electronic ticker ahead of me on the ceiling of the train car, looking for the word the conductor had written on the paper.

Finally, I saw it. I got off the train, found a timetable, figured out when a train to Geneva would come, and finally started to relax. As I sat on the platform, waiting for the train that would actually take me to Switzerland, I started kicking myself right in the ego for being so stupid that I got on the wrong train.

By the time I got to Geneva, all I had lost was a long layover that I had hoped to spend with a cousin, but who had cancelled the day before. I even made the train I had planned to get to Zurich, and then a connection to Wettingen, where a different cousin didn’t meet me because he thought I was going to meet him in Baden – but that’s another story.

In today’s section from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts by asking us to consider where our hearts are, to think about what we value. In a society that values wealth and power, Jesus suggests our values should be focused elsewhere. Treasures on earth or treasures in heaven? You can’t serve God and wealth. It’s one or the other. That’s why, Jesus says, I tell you not to worry about material things. Material things are not what is important. Worry won’t add to your life. Strive first for the kin-dom of God. Tomorrow with bring it’s own troubles. Be present here, now, in this moment, not worrying about some possible future.

There are lots of reasons to be anxious. One typical reason we get anxious is that we worry about things that are beyond our control. There I was, on the wrong train and there was nothing I could do about it. I hear this from parents – worried about their children and feeling powerless to do anything about their futures and the choices they make. Except, of course, they helped their children become the people they are. And they ignore the fact that they are still their parents and can provide some level of safety net. Instead, they may try to manipulate, control, or disempower their kids, thus undermining the parenting they have done for years.

I bet you know of someone, perhaps yourself, who feared so much that they would lose the person they loved that they started clinging and grasping and smothering – and actually ended up driving the person away.

I’m not talking about anxiety disorders. Those are real medical issues that have to do with brain wiring and chemistry. I’m talking about situational anxieties.

When you have this kind of anxiety, you are experiencing a trust deficit. Whether it is a lack of trust in yourself (like I had on the train in France) or a lack of trust in another (like a parent with a child) or a lack of trust in God, when you are anxious about your life, you don’t experience your life – you only experience your anxiety.

Do you remember what happened while I was waiting for the correct train to Geneva? I started taking it out on myself. This is pretty typical. All too often, “anxiety-driven people find a vulnerable person or group to vent their anxiety upon. The result? Bullying, scapegoating, oppression, injustice. And still they will be anxious. Before long, they’ll be making threats and launching wars so they can project their internal anxiety on an external enemy.”[1]

We see this wholesale every four years during the presidential campaign. Whether it’s the immigrants or the Wall Street banks, the candidates tell us to deal with our anxieties – whatever they are actually about – by identifying an enemy to blame. Aaron Sorken summed this up really well in the 1995 film, The American President. The widowed President Andrew Shepherd (played by Michael Douglas) is facing reelection, and his opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, is coming after him by attacking his girlfriend, Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist. Rumson paints Wade as a threat to America. In the movie’s climax, the President interrupts a press conference to defend himself and his girlfriend from Rumson’s attacks. There’s one little clip I want to play from the speech he gives to the press (the important part starts at 2:14 and runs to 2:37).[2]

Of course, what the movie doesn’t show is that the President’s reelection campaign will end up doing the essentially same thing – sometime after the credit roll. This isn’t surprising – both that they don’t show this in the movie and that it will inevitable happen. This is what almost all advertising does. To get us to buy stuff – be it political candidates or stuff we don’t need – advertising uses fantasies and lies, and most of all, fear.

“Here’s a gizmo you need to get for your toddler so they won’t be stupid.” My sister once told me how effective this advertising tool, fear, is on her – especially as a mom, especially when her kids were little.

As I said earlier, fear typically leads us to judgment. As President Shepherd said, it’s all about “Making you afraid of it and telling you who to blame for it.”[3] This is done by creating and judging a “them” of evil, untrustworthy semi-people and an “us” of good, trustworthy fully-people.

There’s that word, “trust,” again. When we create and judge an untrustworthy “them,” we get a feedback loop. The untrustworthiness leads to more anxiety, which leads to more judgment, which leads to more anxiety … Trust is an antidote to this, especially trusting God in the midst of what our anxiety tells us is a dangerous world.

Jesus offers an additional antidote to judgmentalism. Just as focusing on the kin-dom of God helps release our fears, self-examination can release our judgmentalism. “Instead of trying to take splinters out of other people’s eyes – that is, focus[ing] on their faults – we should first deal with the planks in our own eyes. When we have experienced how difficult and delicate it is to deal with our own problems, we will be much more sensitive in helping others deal with theirs.”[4]

We posted a few memes about this on our Facebook page this past week:

Quoting the Dali Lama, one says (complete with spelling error), “What is love? Love is the absence of judgement.”[5]

Another says, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently from you.”[6]

12805960_1054510974570122_7904256972084190311_nAnd the one that was posted yesterday, which seems to resonate with lots of people, says, “When you go out into the woods and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, ‘You’re too this, or I’m too this.’ That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”[7]

“Put simply, if we want to experience nonjudgmental aliveness, then in everything – with no exceptions, we will do unto all others – with no exceptions, as we would have them do to us. In these words, Jesus brings us back to the central realization that we are all connected, all children in the same family, all loved by the same Parent, all precious and beloved. In this way, Jesus leads us out of an anxiety-driven and judgment-driven system, and into a faith-sustained, grace-based system that yields aliveness.

“Beneath our anxiety and judging lies an even deeper problem, according to Jesus. We do not realize how deeply we are loved. He invites us to imagine a child asking his [or her] mom or dad for some bread or fish. No parent would give their hungry child a stone or a snake, right? If human parents, with all their faults, know how to give good gifts to their children, can’t we trust the living God to be generous and compassionate to all who call our for help?”[8]

So, here’s my point – my three points, really:

Our anxieties are more dangerous to us than whatever it is that we’re anxious about.

Our habit of condemning is more dangerous to us than what we condemn in others.

And our misery is unnecessary because each of us is truly, truly love.

As we move into our time of quiet reflection, I invite you to ponder how the love of good parents frees their children from anxiety and the need to judge one another. And I invite you to savor the feeling of being safe and secure in God’s love.

[1] Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 141.
[2] See the clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSQmHWOrNQk. The part that’s important starts at about 2:14 and runs to 2:39.
[3] Ibid.
[4] McLaren, op. cit., 142.
[5] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510424570177/?type=3&size=960%2C594&fbid=1054510424570177
[6] https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054511171236769/?type=3&size=400%2C560&fbid=1054511171236769
[7] Quoting Ram Dass, https://www.facebook.com/NilesDiscoveryChurch/photos/pb.237363212951573.-2207520000.1457240982./1054510974570122/?type=3&size=600%2C900&fbid=1054510974570122
[8] McLaren, op. cit., 142-143.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, September 20, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Mark 9:30-37
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

I assume all of you heard the news about the 14-year-old who was arrested at his Irving, Texas, high school this week.[1]  I want to take you on a journey, a retracing of my experience of this news as it unfolded because I think it is germane to my sermon topic today.

Ahmed Mohamed being arrested. Photo from NBC

For me, the news broke in my Facebook feed.  A 14-year-old boy was arrested in Texas when an electronic clock he made as a project for his engineering class was mistaken for a bomb.  I thought some disparaging thoughts about Texas and scrolled on to the next post.  After all, schools have a responsibility to keep students safe, and if one student did something that threatened or even seemed to threaten the others, the school administration needed to react.

More posts showed up in my Facebook feed when I checked it throughout the day, so I clicked on one.  The first thing I noticed was the kid’s name:  Ahmed Mohamed.  I wondered if the level of suspicion would have been as high if the boy was named Paul Christianson.

And I started wondering about the school staff.  How could they possibly mistake a clock for a bomb?  Had the kid made any threats? No.  Had he ever claimed it was anything but a clock? No.  Did it look like there were explosives? No, it was built in a pencil case.  Why on earth did they call the police and why on earth did the police arrest the kid?

Photo of pencil box in which Ahmed built his clock, released by police.

I was relieved when I started seeing the reactions of people outside Irving, Texas.  My favorite response was from the President, posted on Twitter almost immediately after the story broke:  “Cool clock, Ahmed.  Want to bring it to the White House?  We should inspire more kids like you to like science.  It’s what makes America great.”[2]  Mark Zuckerberg invited Ahmed to visit Facebook and said that he wanted to meet the kid.  The chair of theoretical physics at MIT (Ahmed’s dream school) invited him to come visit (and to visit Harvard) saying that she knows Ahmed likes the hands-on stuff, but the theory of physics can be interesting, too.  And, under the heading of “Get arrested and get cool swag,” Microsoft’s CEO sent Ahmed a care package.[3]

Care package from Microsoft CEO. Photo from Microsoft News

Still, there was part of me that thought, “This was a really stupid mistake on the part of the school and the police, but they do have a responsibility to protect the students.”  And then I read a Facebook post[4] that changed my mind.  This post pointed out that they didn’t evacuate the school, like you do when you think that there’s a bomb.  They didn’t call a bomb squad, like you do when there’s a suspicious package.  They didn’t get as far away from him as possible, like you do if you think he has a bomb.  They put him and the clock in an office, they waited with him for the police to arrive, they put Ahmed and the clock in a police car, and when they got to the police station, they took pictures of it.  They never thought he had a bomb.

At first, I thought the issue was fear – fear of the object, maybe even fear of the object because a Muslim kid built it.  Now I’m inclined to think that the issue is fear – fear that a brown-skinned, Muslim kid could excel, could be creative, might achieve.

Fear makes us do stupid things.

Yes, sometimes fear is helpful.  Over the eons, our fight, flight, or freeze response to threatening situations probably kept Homo sapiens from extinction.  And in some situations, the fear response is still very helpful because it keeps us safe.  But fear can be a conditioned response based on nothing threatening.  Many of the things we fear we learned to fear.  We weren’t afraid of them until experience or culture taught us to be afraid.  And those learned fears often lead to prejudices.  And those prejudices lead to injustices.  Fear can move us to do stupid things.

Or as David Lose puts it, “Fear has this way of leading you to misperceive both threats and opportunities, of prompting impulsive and sometimes irrational behavior, and of narrowing your vision so it’s difficult to see possibilities.  Which is why it’s hard to be wise, prudent, or compassionate when you are afraid.”[5]

“This week’s reading is a fascinating study of the relationship between fear and faith.  Notice that the disciples do not ask Jesus any questions in response to his prediction of his impending crucifixion because they are afraid.  And the next thing you know they’re talking about securing their place in the coming kingdom.  Fear does that.  It both paralyzes you and drives you to look out only for yourself.”[6]

Mark contrasts faith and fear in other places in his gospel.  After he stills the storm that terrified his disciples, Jesus asks them, “Why are you afraid?  Have you no faith?” (Mark 4:40).  As he revives Jairus’ daughter, he tells the distraught father (who had just been told that his daughter was dead), “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36).

“Doubt, as it turns out, is not the opposite of faith; fear is, or at least that kind of fear that paralyzes, distorts, and drives [us] to despair.”[7]

So, here’s a question for you:  What are you afraid of?

I would actually like you to reflect on this question.  Jot down your answers on a corner of your copy of the bulletin.  Push past the phobia answers (for me, that’s snakes; an easy but not instructive answer).  Push past, look inside and ask yourself, “What am I afraid of?”

As I sat with this question this week, these are the answers I came up with:  Perhaps because I keep seeing articles about the astronomical costs for housing in San Francisco that is driving up housing costs throughout the Bay Area, I’m afraid I may not have enough savings to retire.

“Okay,” I thought, “that’s a fear.  But what are you really afraid of, Jeff?”  And I looked deeper inside discovered that I’m afraid of being rejected or shamed; and I’m afraid of anger – my own anger and anger in other people.

I share these fears not because I expect any of you to fix them (or me).  That’s not your job.  They are my fears.  I share them because I think this is a safe space where I can be real.  I share them because I trust you to hear them.  I share them to encourage you to look inside yourself to discover what you really fear.  And I share them because, as Mark is pointing out, there is a relationship between fear and faith.

Jesus’ response to our fears and anxieties is an invitation faith.  And by faith, I don’t mean giving our intellectual assent to some proposition – as if believing the right things about God somehow inoculates us from fear.  Rather, I mean faith “as movement, faith as taking a step forward (even a little step) in spite of doubt and fear, faith as doing even the smallest thing in the hope and trust of God’s promises.

“Note what follows the disciples’ fear and Jesus’ probing question that only exposes the depth of their anxiety:  Jesus overturns the prevailing assumptions about power and security by inviting the disciples to imagine that abundant life comes not through gathering power but through displaying vulnerability, not through accomplishments but through service, and not by collecting powerful friends but by welcoming children.

“These are small things when you think about it.  Serving others, opening yourself to another’s need, being honest about your own needs and fears, showing kindness to a child, welcoming a stranger.  But they are available to each and all of us every single day.  And each time we make even the smallest of these gestures in faith – that is, find the strength and courage to reach out to another in compassion even when we are afraid – we will find our fear lessened, replaced by an increasingly resolute confidence that fear and death do not have the last word.”[8]

I began thinking that the Irving high school over-reaction to Ahmed’s clock was understandable.  We want our schools to be a safe space for our children.  The over-reaction may have exposed how unsafe the schools are – not because of the students, but because of the unnamed, unconscious fears of the adults.

Our lesson from Mark suggests ways to make those school and our churches and every place safer spaces for everyone:  When we make the small gestures of caring, of compassion, of welcome, of honesty,  and when we receive those gestures with gratitude and trust.

Amen.

[1] Bill Chappell, “Texas High School Student Shows Off Homemade Clock, Gets Handcuffed,” National Public Radio, http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/09/16/440820557/high-school-student-shows-off-homemade-clock-gets-handcuffed (posted 16 September 2015, accessed 19 September 2015).

[2] Barack Obama, Twitter, https://twitter.com/POTUS/status/644193755814342656 (posted and accessed 16 September 2015).

[3] Mehedi Hassan, “Ahmed Mohamed gets Surface Pro 3, and more goodies from Microsoft CEO,” Microsoft News, http://microsoft-news.com/ahmed-mohamed-gets-surface-pro-3-and-more-goodies-from-microsoft-ceo/ (posted and accessed 19 September 2015).

[4] I have since seen this post attributed to several people, so I don’t know who wrote it originally.

[5] David Lose, “Pentecost 17B: Faith & Fear,” … in the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2015/09/pentecost-17-b-faith-fear/ (posted and accessed 14 September 2015).

[6] Ibid, emphasis added.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, June 7, 2015, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
Copyright © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This sermon title was nabbed from this children's book I remember from my childhood.

This sermon title was nabbed from this children’s book I remember from my childhood.

One of the more amazing moments in American history, in my opinion anyway, was the Founders’ decision not to have a king. These European men who had lived as subjects of King George decided that all men are created equal, that so no one of them should be set up as sovereign over the others. Of course, by “all,” they meant all white male property owners, not all people. But still, the decision to found a nation without a monarch was an impressive choice, one that went against the conventional wisdom of the day. Well, not all the conventional wisdom of the day. There were Native American nations that were much more democratic then monarchic, but choosing democracy over monarchy certainly went against the conventional European wisdom of the day.

This is a stark contrast to our reading from 1 Samuel.

It’s important to remember the political history that gets us to this point, at least the way the Hebrew Scriptures tell it. They started off as a horde of people whose primary political identity was “freed slaves.” Once they conquered and occupied the territory they thought was promised to them by God, they lived as a confederation of tribes ruled by “judges.” One of the judges was Samuel. Samuel was a judge who had influence throughout the confederation of tribes. He, it turns out, was the last of the great judges. He ends up playing an important transitional role because he becomes the first prophet of the time of the prophets.

At this point in the story, he thought his sons would inherit his role as the leading Judge in the confederation. But they were no good, so this confederation really couldn’t rely on them. And, given the geo-politics, this confederation felt it needed to become a nation to defend itself. They looked at the other powerful nations around them and they had kings. So the leaders went to Samuel and told him that they need him to appoint a king.

The only problem was that, as far as God was concerned, they already had a king: God. That’s one of the important themes in this story. God was their sovereign. God had been their sovereign since leading them out of slavery. By insisting that Samuel appoint a king for them, the Hebrews were rejecting God as their sovereign.

“We want to be just like every other nation, so give us a king.” God and Samuel saw the dangers. Kings will draft your children and send them off to war. Kings will accumulate wealth for themselves at your expense. Kings will tax you excessively to pay off their cronies and make their wars possible. You’re not going to like it.

And did you hear that line? The king “will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.” One-tenth. A tithe. Kings will take what belongs to God.

But the people insisted and a king was selected. As fate would have it, the selection fell on a man named Saul. And, sure enough, Saul went to war almost immediately. And he worked to consolidate his power threatening executions. In other words, Samuel’s warning was right on target.

I think it’s important to look at the Hebrews’ motivation that spurred them to demand an earthly king. They were anxious about their security. They had mega-countries on either side – Egypt to the south; Assyria to the northeast. They looked at these mega-countries and trembled. And they asked themselves, what have these mega-countries got that we don’t. The answer was a king. It made sense. Kings offer security – or they seem to. Kings are tangible. God, on the other hand, it intangible and wants to be a blessing to all nations, not just ours. So, the logical solution to our security anxieties: give us a king.

It seems to me that this reaction is not restricted to years gone by. Look at our reaction to the acts of terror committed on September 11, 2001. Our nation, that was purposely founded without a king, adopted laws that gave the President some kingly powers. Not only was the size of surveillance state increased, but the President was essentially giving the power to declare war. Not only did our Presidents (plural) move us into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but into war in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia as well via the use of drones. Why hasn’t the Congress taken back these kingly powers? The same reason the Hebrews asked for a king of their own: fear.

But the issue for today’s sermon isn’t American politics per se. The issue here is faith. “Give us a king,” the Hebrews demanded of Samuel. Give us someone who is corruptible. Give us someone who will offer us a false sense of security. Give us someone who will make us forget that our hope and our security lies with God and God alone.

A cry went up from Mainline American Protestantism a few weeks ago when the Pew Research report on the state of religion in the United States was released.[1] Woe to us, for we have lost a 3.4% share of the American population. Woe to us, for we are now only 14.7% of the American population. Woe to us! And some are responding by looking at the mega-churches that surround us. Why can’t we be like them? What have they got that we don’t?

I heard a story this past week[2] from a pastor who once served a church as a youth pastor. The mega-church down the street had a huge youth group. Why can’t we have a huge youth group? Why can’t we be just like everyone else? Well, it turns out that the mega-church down the street had a contest: The youth group member who brought the most friends was awarded an iPod. (This was a while ago, when iPods were the latest thing.) Yeah, we could do that. And it would create a big youth group. But would it have been faithful? Wow! We’ve got the biggest bribery youth group in town.

That’s the dilemma the Hebrews faced. A king might be effective (for a time, anyway), but was it faithful? Remember, faith is not primarily about what you believe. Faith is about fidelity and trust and the way you view the world. Asking for a king, demanding a king – what did that say about their faith in God?

The question for the Hebrews wasn’t (or at least it shouldn’t have been) “Who will lead us?” but “How will we follow God and walk with God?” We have the same question before us. As a congregation, how will we follow God and walk with God? As individuals, how will each one of us follow God and walk with God? Our task is always one of listening for God’s vision for us.

There is no one answer that fits all. There is no one vision that is for each one of us or for each congregation. And as times change and circumstances change, God’s vision for us may change, too.

One key component of this is understanding who you are, and who we are. I know I sometimes want to be just like everyone else. I want to fit in. And I suspect the same is true for congregations. We want to be just like everyone else, we want to fit in, not to stand out. Other times we may want to be just like “them,” the “successful” ones – with success typically meaning “large attendance.” But is that God’s vision for us?

There are plenty of gimmicks we can try to grow our church, but if it’s a gimmick, I suspect it won’t be very faithful. What will grow a church is the church giving itself away.

I got an email a while back trying to sell me a pledge campaign. I didn’t bite, but I did like the central metaphor for the campaign – if it were applied to evangelism. The metaphor is a call to move from soupspoons to ladles. My soupspoon is for feeding me. If my evangelism is about filling my soupspoon, it’s about what I’m going to get out of it. My ladle is for filling bowls. If my evangelism is about filling my ladle, it’s about what I’m going to give away to fill someone else’s bowl. And I think that we are generally called to fill other’s bowls, not our own.

Pastor Brenda is going to take a group to a workshop on evangelism in September. The workshop will teach some approaches to ladle evangelism through interpersonal outreach. Emphasis will be on learning, working, practicing, and increasing confidence. Time will be spent on concerns about Interpersonal Outreach, learning how to talk about our church and faith in an authentic but respectful way, and role-playing until you can invite with ease. If you think you might want to go, talk to her.

Whether you go to the workshop or not, it is important to pay attention to what’s motivating you to invite people to church in the first place. If it’s anxiety about the Assyrians to the north and the Egyptians to the south, take a breath. Decisions based in fear are seldom if ever faithful decisions. Decisions grounding in faith – in trust and fidelity – are going to work much better.

Bob Dylan tells us, we’re gonna serve somebody.[3] Remember that all the options other than God – whether money, prestige, or (as popular an idol in the Bible as it is now) national military might – offer false promises of happiness or security. As God pointed out in the Exodus, Pharaoh’s army is all wet.  Samuel warned the Hebrews that the security offered by a king would be short-lived. But God – that’s where our real help come from. And when we glorify God, we remind ourselves and each other, over a crowded field of idolatrous contenders, of that fact.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] See http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.

[2] This was a story told by one of the people on the Pulpit Fiction podcast available at http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/118-proper-5b-june-7-2015.

[3] This conclusion is based on Elizabeth Palmberg’s article, “God’s Glory – It’s Epic,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/gods-glory-its-epic (accessed 2 June 2015).

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